Let Aleks Byrd teach you roosimine and vikkel
Aleks Byrd combines traditional Estonian knitting techniques with her own twists
Designer Aleks Byrd is particularly well-known as a moderniser of Estonian knitting traditions. She wants to build a bridge between heritage knitting cultures and the playfulness of modern knitting.
When she was growing up, there were international days at Aleks Byrd’s school. On those days, her mother used to dress Aleks in the Estonian national costume. In her hometown, Washington D.C., it was often 30ºC (86ºF), and Aleks would be sweating in her woollen skirt and socks. That’s when she felt that she was involuntarily an ambassador of Estonian culture: that girl who had to explain why her name was spelled differently, and what this small European country on the Baltic Sea was.
Back then, she didn’t understand the meaning of her background, but these days Aleks, whose mother is Estonian Canadian and father American, is proud and thankful. Being Estonian is an important part of her identity and profession.
Thirty-year-old Aleks works as illustrator and knitwear designer, and she is particularly well-known as a moderniser of Estonian knitting traditions. She has introduced techniques such as roosimine (an inlay technique that creates the look of embroidery) and vikkel (a twisted stitch pattern that creates a cable-like pattern) to knitters around the world.
“Knitting has helped me to understand my roots and kind of fall in love with them again,” Aleks explains.
This spring, her work gets a special recognition as Laine Publishing brings out her book Traditions Revisited – Modern Estonian Knits. The book includes 19 patterns, which are based on traditional Estonian techniques, but have a distinctive graphic touch by Aleks.
“With the help of this book, I want to build a bridge between two groups of people: the Estonian knitters and the international knitting community,” Aleks explains.
From a hobby to a job
The Estonian aspect was omnipresent in Aleks’ childhood. Her Canada-born mother, who has Estonian roots, wanted her daughter to grow up with the Estonian culture. Aleks learned to speak Estonian from her mother and her Estonian nannies, and at home they cooked Estonian dishes using Grandma’s recipes: smoked white fish, pancakes with jam, different kinds of pastries, potato dishes, and so on.
Aleks’ mother also taught her the basics of knitting. Aleks remembers being perhaps eight or nine when she was allowed to choose the yarn for her first scarf.
“It was all about Harry Potter those days so I decided to knit a Gryffindor scarf in garter stitch. I chose chenille yarn because it was glossy and soft. The yarn kept twisting and snapping but I somehow managed to finish the scarf,” Aleks laughs.
Aleks got really into knitting in the last years of high school, when she joined the school’s knitting club. When she left for New York to finish her undergraduate degree in graphic design and illustration, knitting also became a way to make new friends. Aleks joined knitting groups, spent time in New York yarn shops, took part in workshops and attended knitting festivals. Four years ago, she moved to Bath in the UK for a master’s degree in textile design, and there she also made many new friends in the knitting community. Knitting has given her a lot socially, too.
About six years ago, Aleks started to design her own patterns.
“I attended a knitting retreat, where we were planning to knit a colourwork cowl. I didn’t like the pattern, so I decided to invent my own. It was then that I realised that if I can do this, I can surely do much more.”
Broadening the tradition
Aleks’ mother taught her to knit, but she didn’t at that point master the traditional Estonian techniques. Aleks has learned those herself, by trial and error. She has used Estonian knitting books – the oldest book in her collection dates back to 1930 – as well as attending workshops and talking to local crafters. As Estonia is a small country, it often happens that a relative of hers knows someone who is able to help. Aleks has also found master knitters through Estonia’s handicrafts union and toured handicrafts fairs asking for advice from the women knitting in the
“They are usually happy to help, though they can be strict! For example, in Estonia people have traditionally knit lace in particular with straight needles and when I once asked whether I can do it with circular needles, the answer had been ‘no’, as it has always been done a certain way.”
This is something that Aleks consciously wants to change. She has learned the traditional techniques but has applied them to modern knitting styles. This way, the knitwear becomes easier to make and more wearable.
“Traditional knits can sometimes be almost too beautiful and decorative to wear every day. In my designs, I also broaden the idea about where and how these knits can be worn.”
For a small country, Estonia boasts a rich and varied knitting tradition, and the styles are mostly local. Different regions have their own unique colourwork patterns, techniques and colour palettes. By looking at a knitted garment – and this applies especially to mittens – you can often tell even in which town it has been made.
In Estonia, traditional knits are made using thin needles and fine 100% wool yarn, but Aleks switches between the needle sizes and might, for example, blend wool with mohair. She also broadens the horizons in the techniques: if a technique has traditionally only been used when knitting in the round, she also tries it when knitting flat, or takes a pattern typically used in mittens and uses it in a cardigan.
Always something to learn
Aleks wants to create patterns that leave space for playfulness. As a designer, she believes she offers the tool kit and the guidelines but knitters have the freedom to modify the patterns with regard to, for example, colours.
Aleks is good with techniques and enjoys challenges. That’s why one of her aims is to get knitters to try out new techniques. For her, the best thing about knitting is that there are always new things to learn and, on the other hand, you can also learn to do old things in a new way.
“I have attended an Estonian knitting festival in Kihnu twice. To take part, you need to fill in a form and answer what level knitter you are: no experience, beginner, average or master. I choose the average level as there are still more things to learn.”
The full-length version of this feature was first published in Laine issue 14.
Text: Maija Kangasluoma
Photos: Jonna Hietala & Sini Kramer